SIC councillors have delivered an overwhelming vote of confidence in finance chief James Gray, approving his £116 million budget for next year with only one minor adjustment.
In stark contrast to last year’s day-long marathon, members took less than four hours on Wednesday to agree spending proposals which will result in £12.4 million of spending cuts in 2013/14.
Political leader Gary Robinson said that was testament to the detailed preparations which had gone into drawing up the budget since the autumn. With the cuts taking the council 70 per cent of the way towards balancing its books, Mr Robinson described it as a “giant leap” forward.
Mr Gray said the reductions in spending – likely to result in around 300 jobs being cut – were necessary if the council wants to safeguard its oil reserves at or above £125 million in the medium term. The draw on reserves this year will be nearly £28 million, but half of that will fund “one-off” items.
He said the council was still spending 45 per cent more than Orkney on day-to-day services. With council tax being frozen for a sixth consecutive year, Shetland residents will pay the fourth lowest rates in the country while benefiting from “the best funded public services in Scotland”.
Mr Gray said the budget was shifting spending to reflect the areas councillors wished to see prioritised, chiefly education and social care. While the infrastructure, children’s services and community care budgets are being cut by 10 per cent or less, spending on development is being slashed by 20 per cent.
Wednesday’s meeting saw votes held on four items. Only one resulted in a modification to Mr Gray’s proposed budget: while the planned £68,000 cut to community council funding goes ahead, the same sum will be made available for specific projects if they meet the necessary criteria.
An impassioned plea from Jonathan Wills to reverse the decision to axe a holiday playscheme for pupils with additional support needs failed by 13 votes to eight.
Meanwhile Steven Coutts was rebuffed by a 16-3 margin when he sought a reduction in Promote Shetland’s budget.
Finally, George Smith wanted plans to remove skips from rural areas postponed until a new collection scheme had been “properly thought through”. But his amendment was trounced 16-4.
Mr Robinson said the SIC had devised a “much more effective way” of setting its budget this year. He made a dig at the previous council, which commissioned some 52 service reviews after a chaotic nine-hour meeting last February to set the 2012/13 budget.
“Part of the problem last time was we were towards the end of a council,” he said. “It may have suited some of the members not to take the decisions, kick them into the long grass, push them into the new council.
“Because of the vast size of the structural deficit we inherited, it wasn’t something we could kick into the long grass any further.”
With nearly £16 million of cuts set to be banked in the current financial year, Mr Robinson said this council was finally taking action which had been badly needed for two decades.
“I think the message has got home,” he said. “It’s been said for a very long time. [Late SIC convener] Edward Thomason was saying as long ago as 1993 that there had to be a change in the way the council managed its finances to avoid getting what he called a ‘nasty dunt’.
“If everything goes to plan, we will manage to avoid the nasty dunt he spoke of, but it isn’t going to be easy.”
Looking to 2014 and beyond, Mr Robinson acknowledged that more taxing days lie ahead. A further £3 million of savings are pencilled in from shutting most of Shetland’s junior high schools and several primaries. There is also uncertainty over how big cuts in community care will be achieved.
He said the council intended to have a “full and open discussion” about school closures, and said parents’ suggestions on education cuts were being “actively looked at”.
“I’m determined that as far as the law allows us to, we’ll deliver the schools consultations in as open and honest a fashion as the ferries review was conducted in,” he said.
Mr Robinson continued: “I think there’s a real recognition that the council has to change its ways in terms of its spending.
“There are still a lot of very emotive things caught up in that – Dr Wills spoke about support for ASN, and there was a lot of debate about services such as skips, public toilets, [the] bus station – all of those have turned out to be real challenges to members.”
Council convener Malcolm Bell, who chaired Wednesday’s meeting, said he was pleased with how events had played out.
“We’ve made a big step forward,” he said. “Even when we do get to financial sustainability we will still be spending more on services per head than any other council. I’m just pleased that this council is sticking together and showing resolve to get us through a very difficult period.”
There was limited public dissent from backbench councillors this week. However, one did say privately that there was a disturbing “lack of vision” as to what SIC services will look like when this council leaves office in 2017.
Meanwhile, with trade unions set to open negotiations on where job cuts are likely to fall, Unison branch representative Brian Smith said that while the council had an “incredibly well developed financial plan”, there were “absolutely no comparable social ideas”.